No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 01, 1999

Ship Fever -- Andrea Barrett

A collection of short stories which share the love of science - and vice versa - as their theme. It would have been easy for this to be a pretentious sort of book: lots of strained metaphors and parables, a few famous scientists behaving in uneasily human fashion, etc. Instead, each story contains, in miniature, the sort of human interest, intelligence and passion which appeal to me in novels such as The Vintner's Luck (Elizabeth Knox, 1999).

Barrett doesn't focus on the moments of discovery, or the great scientists of the past: she is more concerned with those who fail, or those who never try, or - in one story - those who have effectively completed their life's work and are waiting to die.

The stories ... well, this sentence began 'especially worthy of mention' until I found myself listing the entire contents of the collection. I'll stick to describing and discussing those that made most impact on me.

'Birds without Feet' is the story of Alec, a nineteenth-century naturalist who follows in the footsteps of Alfred Wallace, hunting and killing and stuffing birds and animals, mourning each death but telling himself it is in the name of science. Gradually he can no longer deny that the deaths are for nothing; that he will never experience the flash of insight, the new discovery, which could justify the slaughter. Approaching nature passionately rather than intellectually, he's too caught up with detail to be a theorist, 'caught like a fly in the richness around him, drowning in detail'. Unlike his role models, he is not serving a 'greater good', but a misplaced and unrealistic ambition, to be like them: to be them.

In 'The English Pupil', Linnaeus, victim of several strokes and senility, instructs his coachman to take him out of the city to his old house. Night and snow are falling: somewhere, vaguely, he thinks that someone might be wondering where he is. The man who developed a system of nomenclature that was widely used even within his lifetime cannot remember the fates or names of his dead friends, or of the young man - the English pupil - who comes with Linnaeus' daughter to take him home. Poignant and thoughtful: an encapsulated 'life of Linnaeus' in fragments, as recalled by an old, sick man on a snowy night.

I was also rather taken with 'Rare Bird', in which spinster Sarah Anne writes, with increasing frustration, to Linnaeus, contradicting his theory that swallows winter underwater, in frozen ponds and rivers. The advent of a widow, also interested in natural philosophy, encourages her to experiment by forcing a swallow to 'hibernate' (and Barrett could have forced the parallel with witches, 'if it dies it was innocent'). Upon fishing out the drowned bird, she realises that something must change - and flees with her friend the widow. Once her brother realises that she's gone, he believes that she's 'flown to other climes': in fact, her fate is never made clear, although her brother behaves as though his theory is a fact. A remarkably understated and evocative story: a clear and intelligent perspective on what it meant to be an eighteenth-century woman, even a wealthy one, with scientific ambitions.

'The Behaviour of the Hawkweeds' brings together several tales. Antonia has inherited a letter drafted by Mendel, dealing with genetics: Mendel had been misled by a fellow scientist into investigating heredity in the hawkweeds, which don't display the same straightforward lines of inheritance as do peas. The letter, passed to her by her grandfather, becomes a kind of dowry in her marriage to Richard, a present-day - rather mediocre - geneticist. What he never thinks to ask her is how she came to possess the letter. A young man to whom she is attracted asks that question: Antonia tells the story her way rather than her husband's, just for once, and thus betrays her husband's pride.

I can't do that story justice by simply describing it: there are so many facets to the tale. The rivalry between the Czech immigrants (Antonia's family) and the Germans (a man killed by Antonia's grandfather, leading to her possession of the letter): the laws of genetics, embodied in Antonia's sixth toe which her children don't show, but which appears once more in her grandchild: the pettiness of scientific research, both in Mendel's time and in the mild departmental politics between Richard and the younger scientist ...

All life is here.